Review: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

I came to this novel for the Brontë connection, hoping for a really good historical fiction about real-life people. I got a powerful tour de force about the limited lives of even upper class British women in the mid 19th century.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads blurb:

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.

But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.

I’ve never been all that interested in Branwell Brontë (not like his fascinating sisters), but I was definitely intrigued by the idea of a fictionalized account of his affair with Mrs. Robinson.

My thoughts:

This book is so well written. I have more highlighted passages on my Kindle for this one than for any other book I’ve read recently. Gorgeous and lush prose, obviously meticulously researched, fascinating and intoxicating. It was nearly impossible to put down once I got started—first because of the tension between Lydia Robinson and Branwell, later just to see what Lydia would do next.

Neither Lydia nor Branwell are very likable characters. Lydia Robinson is complex: lonely, sad, passionate, desperate, selfish, shallow… she made me so mad at some points in the story, but at other points I realized she’s very much a product of her time and place. She’s a smart, emotional woman who is oppressed and limited, judged and neglected. Branwell is really a secondary character, and that’s just fine—he’s the tortured, struggling soul that does sort of get chewed up and spit out by his Mrs. Robinson, but I love the way he’s written here. The slow building of the romantic tension between these two is palpable and their inevitable relationship is scorchingly hot.

Despite being the titular mistress, Lydia is much more than an older, married woman dallying with a younger, freer artistic type. She’s a wife who very much loved her early relationship with her husband, is mourning the loss of a young child and her own mother, has a complicated relationship with her teenaged daughters, and is dealing with her own aging and loss of relevance. I couldn’t stand her, I was rooting for her, I wanted her to get on with her affair, I wanted her to go to her husband, I wanted her to be a better mother, I wanted her to find what she needed… and I mainly felt horrible for her and the limited options she had. Just listen to her:

‘It was tiring, always calculating how I might appear best, but what other options were available to me? If I had to tie myself to a mast—and I had to—it might as well be to the grandest, proudest ship.’

and…

‘He saved me and destroyed me all at once, taught me I could still feel so I could discover that I needed more than him.’

and especially:

‘There were women from here to England, crying over curtain fabric, scolding their children, and aching for change and love or, at least, excitement. And most, if not all, of them would be disappointed. Their fate and mine was too common to be the stuff of tragedy.’

I can’t finish this review without also mentioning how starstruck I was when the Brontë sisters were mentioned or appeared. Especially Charlotte, of course.

This book is an astoundingly good debut. I can’t wait to see what Finola Austin does next.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Review: Wonderland by Zoje Stage

I make it a point to go in to most books knowing as little about them as possible. I like to know the genre, the age group it’s written for, and will read a basic blurb, but otherwise, I try to avoid a lot of info and all reviews until after I finish. I’m not the least bit concerned about the average rating on Goodreads or Litsy when I start a book. Wonderland was no different for me, and can I just say, having finished it: wow, there are some seriously mixed reviews for this one.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads description:

The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They’re an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it’s his turn to pursue his passion. But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds.

The description also says of the book ‘If Shirley Jackson wrote the The Shining, it might look like this…’

The Shining is an awesome book, and I adore Shirley Jackson, so I was thrilled to get an ARC of this book.

My thoughts:

It seems like I may be one of the few people who haven’t read Stage’s debut, Baby Teeth, yet, so I can’t compare the two books. I did find her writing to be fantastic: beautiful, richly detailed, at times lyrical, and so atmospheric. I was most definitely feeling some Shining vibes in the descriptions of the cold, natural world outside of the farmhouse, and Jackson’s influence was also present. I thought Stage executed the mounting suspense very well, and I found the reading of this novel unsettling in the best possible way.

The story is told first-person from the perspective of wife, mom and newly-retired ballet dancer, Orla. I got a lot of insight into Orla’s character and could definitely sympathize with her throughout. Her husband Shaw isn’t nearly as well fleshed-out as a character, nor are her slightly unusual children—but I believe that was on purpose to help ratchet up the dread, suspense, and wtf moments that this book does so well.

Parts of the book did seem a bit repetitive, especially the near-constant use of the daughter’s name (Eleanor Queen, which is never, ever shortened in the book). I think it was perhaps a few pages too long, as the end seems to sort of drag a bit, but I was still very surprised at a few points during the story, and the ending was perfectly ambiguous.

Overall, a solid, suspenseful psychological horror novel. It’s not super gory, and it’s also definitely not a fast-paced, action-packed thrill ride—more of a slow burn, so probably not for everyone. I definitely plan to circle back and read Baby Teeth, as I like what I’ve read from Zoje Stage.

⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2